A Feast for Readers

Minette’s Feast – written by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Amy Bates, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012

The endpapers are a checked tablecloth.  The book includes a glossary of French words.  Yet this is not only a book for cuisine fans (foodies) or even of Julia Child.  Nor does it appeal only to fans of books about famous people’s pets.  Minette’s Feast is a gloriously illustrated picture of Paris in the late nineteen-forties, when Child and her husband, Paul, lived there and she started her culinary career.  The book’s dialogue, according to the author, Susanna Reich’s, notes, is taken from Child’s My Life in France, and from letters quoted in Noël Riley Fitch’s Appetite for Life. The descriptive narrative is as unpretentiously descriptive as its pictures.  Julia’s cat, Minette, looks through the window of her “old gray house, one block from the River Seine,” and smells “the delicious smells of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, cheese soufflés, and duck patés wafting from the pots and pans of her owner, Julia Child.”

I have admired Amy Bates’ picture book work before (see this interview with her collaborator Lesléa Newman).  Here, her images combine detailed realism and impressionistic colors and shadings.  A delighted Julia in a long green skirt, matching heels, a blue blouse and white apron, practices her art, stirring two pots at once, while Minette looks on.  The famous chef was extremely tall, and Bates does not minimize this quality, showing Julia shopping at the local market. 

She towers over the two other women in the picture and her sturdy laced shoes are also proportionately long. When Julia hosts a dinner party, Minette sits at one end of the table, a woman in a dark red dress holding a glass of red wine at the other.  Everyone is happy, including Julia, her white dress matching the ribbon of smoke swirling around her roast. Two pages of Minette’s acrobatics while feasting on leftovers and chasing a bone are matched by a ballet of words: “She frisked and flounced, darted and batted./She tiptoed and hopped, danced and pranced.”

“As the months passed, Julia became quite the gourmet cook.”  The two-page spread features four versions of Julia in motion: reading, whisking, searching, and tasting.  The well- appointed kitchen is the scenery and the action unfolds like a movie.  Julia is utterly absorbed, with all the enthusiasm of a novice. Her cat’s attention is equally focused on a small mouse under the stove. 

The story of how Julia acquired Minette adds a poignant touch to this snapshot of one moment in the chef’s life.  A cutaway picture of Julia and Paul’s apartment on the top two floors of an elegant old building shows their life together. we see them, in each room, dining, sleeping, eating, sharing coffee in front of a fire.  “There was only one thing missing.”  The next page reveals their adoption of Minette. Julia and Paul never had children, although their life was full in other ways.  Yet the expectation raised on one page and humorously altered on the next one leaves a graceful suggestion of changed expectations in this charming book.

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